06/11/2010 02:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Unrealized Economic Potential of the Muslim World

The meteoric rise of China as an economic powerhouse may have its roots in a society that has a rich cultural history of innovation and exchange. But when China cut itself off from the world, it lay dormant for a long time, mired in feudalism and illiteracy. The Cultural Revolution brought a constrained societal structure of state-planned families, rigid education, and compulsory participation of both sexes in the workforce. This may have laid the early blueprint for its current industrial dominance, which accelerated to a frenzied pace once China loosened its grip on economic policies and encouraged trade. The biggest key to its success may lie in its workforce, which is literate (about 90 percent or better for women over fifteen years and older), abundant, skilled, cheap, and nearly half female. Women make about forty five percent of the Chinese workforces, and they are represented at many levels. They garner thirty eight percent of leadership positions, and increasingly they are filling seats in higher offices. So what does Chinese economic demography have to with the Muslim world?

To put it bluntly, Muslim nations offer dismal demographic data regarding women in the workforce, and it is this data that will decide whether these countries are going to be economically or technologically significant in the future. As it stands now, none of these modern economically nascent Muslim nations are consequential in the areas I mentioned, some of which can be attributed to cultural and religious idiosyncrasies. Malaysia, a country with a high literacy rate for women, is a progressive yardstick by which other Muslim countries should be measured: it has 36 percent female representation in its overall workforce and in over 50 percent of technology jobs -- a figure even higher than some industrialized western countries.

Women account for 38 percent of all tertiary enrollments in Malaysia. Although even with these exemplary statistics, it is by no means an economic powerhouse, it is still better off than most other Muslim countries. Malaysia has some high-tech fabrication plants and a middle scale multi-sector manufacturing base, both of which women feature in significantly. Setting aside the issue of human rights and appealing solely to economic motivation for the sake of argument, the other countries should take note of this fact and start educating more women to join their workforce.

Lebanon -- which is quite modernized despite being battered by nearly four decades of civil war, foreign encroachments, and losses of livelihood and infrastructure -- manages a 27 percent female presence in it workforce, and 45 percent in academic enrollment. The literacy rate among women is high in Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, Syria, and Algeria at better than 50 percent for women over fifteen years of age, but they lack industries and a manufacturing base. There are some former soviet block Muslim countries that should, theoretically, have high literacy rates (free education for all being a promised fruit of communism) and should consequently have a good percentage of women in the workforce, but these countries are still quite arcane industrially and accurate data is not forthcoming. While they have industries, their manufacturing plants are in state of disrepair.

Turkey, which is also very modernized and progressive, manages just a 22 percent representation of women in its labor force. This was a bit of a surprise for me because I expected it to be higher -- forgetting its sheer size and predominance of rural areas over metropolises! Curiously, Iran fares better than Turkey at 25 percent women in the workforce. But there are other statistics about Iran that are quite revealing. For example, Iran has improved its percentage of women in the workforce since the fall of its Shah. And of all the Muslim countries, Iran has the highest rate of enrollment of women in its academic institutions, even surpassing men, at 60 percent: a fact that may astonish the American audience whose news diet is entirely based on anemic but ubiquitous cable news.

So why do these Muslim nations have such poor representation of women in the workforce? Most of the other Muslim nations, other than the ones I mentioned, have far worse literacy rates. Pakistan, which touts itself as the only Islamic nuclear power, has one of the worst literacy rates for women, faring worse than the Muslim women of India. The treatment of women in these countries is deplorable, especially in the rural areas where local land owners reign supreme with little or no legal reach of the central government. Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and sub-Saharan Africa are the worst offenders. Saudi Arabia is notorious for treating its women as second class citizens by wrenching away many rights; the women are mostly literate, but hardly factor in the workforce. Iran, despite its veiling laws for women and a code conduct between the sexes, leaves the citizenry alone when it comes to education. The Arabian Gulf countries treat their women only marginally better: they do not have compulsory veiling laws and there is a good literacy rate among women--however, women are not represented well in the workforce or in leadership positions. Yet even this good literacy rate statistic is spurious: a very high percentage (nearly 85 percent) of their population is foreign, and most of them immigrate there after being educated in their native countries.

This ignoble treatment of women in Muslim countries is quite inscrutable when you consider the fact that the prophet Mohammad honed his interpersonal and negotiating skills working for a business woman from a well known family in Mecca. She hired him to manage her trade caravans to Syria and Yemen: he later became known for his deft and ethical business style, stemming from these trade dealings. He married his employer (who was older than him) at her own request, and she was his first wife. The pre-Islamic women of Arabia were pretty much treated like commodities. They had very poor civil rights and no legal representation. With the advent of Islam, they did acquire some important rights. They were given a form of binding financial nuptial agreement (haq mehr) that is bestowed upon the bride by the groom, and the bride has the right to collect this amount in the event of a divorce. They were given inheritance rights, the right to consent to a marriage, and divorce rights (Catholicism still doesn't allow divorce legally: a difficult-to-win annulment is not exactly a divorce). Any asset that was brought into the marriage by the bride became the sole domain of the bride alone. Women could keep their lineage name (albeit coming from their father's side)...and more.

The bourgeoisie of the Indian subcontinent and of some of the other poor Muslim countries do educate and treat women better than other societal strata, and they do have better literacy rates than the national average. But these educated women tend to 'marry up', and tend not to practice their métier once married. They are either expected to or on their own volition, often fall into the traditional housewife role even after the children are reared or well looked after. In the subcontinent where I grew up (and in the Middle East), these educated women became the consummate socialites after marriage, entertaining friends, family, and extended family incessantly, and spending much of their time honing the art of gossiping to quell their ennui. Seldom did the socialites I saw around me volunteer their time towards community organizations or become part of an association or organization to further the economic or social cause of less fortunate Muslim women. Tragically some of these women happen to be, by training, doctors and teachers. There is an old African saying, "If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate the community"--something that, sadly, is true unless these women apply themselves towards the noble professions they chose in the first place.

If the Muslim world wants to succeed and become part of the modern economic fabric with a twenty-first century economy, it must not only educate its women far better but also incorporate them into their workforce without any social stigma. Perhaps an eighteenth century industrial economy with the help of colonization can promulgate a country into prosperity, innovation, and a high standard of living, but this is 2010. In the last fifty years of worldwide economic changes and growth, there hasn't been a single country which had had rousing success without the help of both halves of the populous. With these lugubrious statistics the Islamic world faces, it's quite unlikely we'll see any dominant economic phoenix rising from the current pile of socio-economic ashes, which has been lying dormant for centuries now.